Informed or Just Formed?

The other day a friend told me he had an insight while at the gym in the early morning before going to work.  He was watching Fox News and the news commentator said something to the effect that while normally they had only one story to tell to get the listeners fired up, that morning he had five stories to tell.  My friend told me he realized that the news, at least on Fox that morning, was not so much about news but about getting people fired up over issues.  The stories the commentator offered, relative to all else going on in the world, were not even that significant but all were aimed at the passions and getting ‘the base’ fired up.

Perhaps Lenten effort to reduce the passions pays off and some actually get insights into just how the media plays on our passions.  Some of it is because news channels are on the air 24/7 and really don’t have that much significant to say.  So they blather on about all kinds of issues which they hope will impassion the listener – just so the listener will stay tuned and come back for more.   They aim at getting their audience to react to what they say – not to think about it and whether it is even worth bothering about – but just to react.   It is manipulation of the passions.

I was in the car with my son on the same day that my friend spoke to me.  Playing on his car radio was a sports talk show.  What total insignificant drivel the host blathered on about.  Same problem – really not that much to talk about but his job is to fill his time on the airwaves.   You need people who can make whatever they are prattling about to sound very exciting – and hopefully to engage the listeners passionately so they will keep listening.

I tuned out of commercial TV and radio long ago.  Today when I happen to hear talk shows or news shows I find them boring and mindless and hard to listen to because they often have nothing significant to say, but they have to say it 24/7.   As I heard many years ago the real purpose of the shows is to keep you tuned in between commercials which are the real product commercial broadcasting is offering.  The ‘show’ just fills the time between commercials.  Talk show hosts are thus often nothing more than  tricksters aiming to see how long they can keep you listening to their nonsensical jabber.  Using emotional tricks – like hitting on something people might get passionate about even if it is insignficant – just to keep you attuned are tools of the trade.

Talk shows and politically driven “news” produce a heavy stream of hooey, hogwash, bunk, rot and rubbish, all to capture your attention in order to shape your mind.  Sadly, you are a witting and willing participant every time you tune in.  They can’t force themselves into your life, you choose to open the door of your mind to whatever nonsense they broadcast.  Even if you react negatively to what is said, they win as long as they keep you listening and reacting.

Much of what passes for news on commercial TV and radio these days is a mixture of sensational leads and headlines to draw you in, presented in an entertaining way to hold your attention, marketing to hijack your emotions,  and very intentionally selected stories which aim at not informing you, the listener, but forming you.  They are out after your heart and mind.  They want you to be passionate about the things they are passionate about.  It is formational more than informational.   They want to shape how you think in order to get you fired up about what they deem is important.  And there are a cadre of organizations which do nothing but test and measure the social climate to tell the media whether they are hitting a nerve with the listeners or not.

Fifteen hundred years before there was commercial media, St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 390AD) said:

“It is in our power to remain unaffected by passion as long as we stay far away from the thing that enflames.”

It is perhaps Lenten advice – stay away from pornography and from commercial media and you will find you can control your passions.  The abstinence and fasting of Lent can work to improve our spiritual lives and help us regain control of our thinking by regaining control of our hearts and minds.  Don’t let your mind and heart be the slurry pit of commercial or social media!

Some more wisdom from St. Gregory of Nyssa:

“Those who look towards the true God receive within themselves the characteristics of the divine nature; so too, those who turn their minds to the vanity of idols are transformed into the objects which they look at.”

Commercial media is trying to form our hearts and minds.  And when we pay attention to them, we let them.  We enable them to transform our thinking, to enflame our passions, to color our worldview.   And what they are offering is not the Gospel, even if they try to convince you it is.   We allow our minds to be transformed by the things we turn to.   The power of Great Lent or just normal, daily Christian self-denial is to resist the efforts of others to take over our thinking.  Turn to God and you will become godly.  Keep attuned to the media and you will be “transformed into the objects which you look at.”  Not a pretty picture.

I saw an article in the April 2014 edition of THE SMITHSONIAN called, “Fast and Furious.”  In the short piece Matthew Shaer comments on studies which have been done measuring how fast various information travels on social media.  (And for the sake of full disclosure, just as I don’t watch or listen to commercial media, I’m not on Facebook or Twitter – it is a world I don’t appreciate).  The findings of the research:

“Joy moves faster than sadness or disgust, but nothing is speedier than rage.  The researchers found that users reacted most angrily – and quickly—to reports concerning ‘social problems and diplomatic issues’…   In many cases, these flare ups triggered a chain reaction of anger … in a widening circle of hostility.”

Professor Jonah Berger at the Wharton School says, “Anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action.  It makes you feel fired up, which makes you more likely to pass things on.”

Another study showed that a reaction of sadness to news tended to deactivate people and they would “power down and withdraw.”   So the news media which has a political agenda for example does not want people to feel compassion as a result of their stories. That deactivates people.  So they tell stories to inflame anger as they know anger might compel people to act, even if in mindless rage.   Informing you about what is going on is less important than forming you – shaping how you see the world, what you value, what you despise, what you react to.

While anger is appropriate at times, in our culture it is becoming the sole emotion that politicians and news media want to stir up and then tap into.  That is because they too know how anger motivates.   Christianity however is more attuned to compassion for those who are suffering.  Think about the Good Samaritan story and how it might be retold today by a news outlet to get you angry so that you act as they want you to act.  Is the Good Samaritan really nothing more than a parable about  imposing health care on everyone?  The victim of the beating should have behaved more responsibly in the first place.  We are all victims and need government to intervene for us.

Professor Berger was involved in a study of the social media that found one more intriguing fact.

“The one emotion that outpaced anger in Berger’s story was awe, the feelings of wonder and excitement that come from encountering great beauty or knowledge…   ‘Awe…increases our desire for emotional connection and drives us to share.”

Perhaps standing in an Orthodox Church, we will be moved by awe to mercy and compassion for others.  That would be a great result of Lent, of turning away from being formed by the media, to being transformed by awe as we see the face of God in icons painted and living.

Well Reasoned Words (II)

This is the conclusion to the blog Well Reasoned Words.  In that blog we looked at a scientist’s view of why science and reason are essential to any political debate or national policy decision.

The second essay which I think is a worthy read appeared in the 25 September 2011  New York Times  Opinionator section: ‘Quixote,’ Colbert and the Reality of Fiction written by William Egginton.    Egginton is responding to another essay which was touting scientific knowledge as the only way to know anything.

“In his contribution to The Stone last week, Alex Rosenberg posed a defense of naturalism — ‘the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge’ — at the expense of other theoretical endeavors such as, notably, literary theory. To the question of ‘whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding,’ Professor Rosenberg’s answer is as unequivocal as it is withering: just like fiction, literary theory can be ‘fun,’ but neither one qualifies as ‘knowledge.’”

Egginton takes total exception to Rosenberg’s interpretation of scientific materialism and says literature including fiction does give us real knowledge about what it is to be human:

“Does their fictional art not offer insights into human nature as illuminating as many of those the physical sciences have produced?

As a literary theorist, I suppose I could take umbrage at the claim that my own discipline, while fun, doesn’t rise to the level of knowledge. But what I’d actually like to argue goes a little further. Not only can literary theory (along with art criticism, sociology, and yes, non-naturalistic philosophy) produce knowledge of an important and even fundamental nature, but fiction itself, so breezily dismissed in Professor Rosenberg’s assertions, has played a profound role in creating the very idea of reality that naturalism seeks to describe.”

Egginton offers a point with which many humans, not just theistic ones:  you might be able to define the exact chemical composition of a human being through science, but this still will not tell you what it is to be human.  Insights into being human and human beings is real knowledge and an important part of what knowledge humans are capable of attaining beyond what science can say.

You can read Egginton’s comments which are a wonderful essay which ties in Cervantes and Stephen Colbert as part of the human effort to reveal truth and knowledge.  Egginton cites Colbert’s portrayal of then President George W Bush as evidence of fiction giving us knowledge:

“’The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady,’ Colbert said, standing in front of the president of the United States. ‘You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.’ Colbert’s routine mocked the administration’s slippery relation to truth (what happened Tuesday), and identified the president’s famous ‘resolution’ as the character trait that the administration relied on to sell their version of reality.”

We do come to get insight into our human existence from sources other than science.  And Egginton argues that we need fiction, irony, and humor to really gain insight into ourselves.

“As Cervantes realized in the context of the newly born mass culture of the Catholic, imperial, Spanish state, irony expertly wielded is the best defense against the manipulation of truth by the media. Its effect was and still is to remind its audience that we are all active participants in the creation and support of a fictional world that is always in danger of being sold to us as reality.”

The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

This is the 3rd blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word,  The Information, The Bit (II).

The 20th Century saw in science an increased understanding of the importance of entropy and randomness in physics.  The concept of randomness had implications for other fields as well including biology and the emerging science of encryption and information theory.  It became clear that the standard for science – Newtonian physics – did not accurately describe the atomic and sub-atomic worlds.   At the atomic level the universe did not function like a predictable machine, but rather there existed a randomness in motion, and a tendency for all things to move toward entropy – a total randomness.

Living things actually survive by undoing the randomness apparent in the atomic world.  “In other words, the organism sucks orderliness from it surroundings.”  Or, as Erwin Schroedinger (d. 1961) described it:  “To put it less paradoxically, the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.” (p 283)  In many ways, living things are computing information from their surroundings, turning randomness into life with its ordered cells.

The world of physics and mathematics and the study of biology and even human language was becoming more clearly the same study, all of it having a measurable mathematical and logical basis.  Randomness it was realized may not mean blind chance, since it to contained measurable information.

“’Chance is only the measure of our ignorance,’ Henri Poincare famously said. ‘Fortuitous phenomena are by definition those whose laws we do not know.’ … such phenomena as the scattering of raindrops, their causes physically determined but so numerous and complex as to be unpredictable.  In physics—or whatever natural processes seem unpredictable—apparent randomness maybe noise or may arise from deeply complex dynamics.”   (p 326)

It reminds me a great deal of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s  (d. 1881) argument that the apparent randomness of world events which caused some to disbelieve in God caused him to think that there is an orderliness to the world and a logic which is beyond human rationality.  It thus spoke to him that there was a God whose logic and rational is simply beyond our capacity to comprehend.    We think we can know all there is to know and thus can understand everything.  Even modern science says this is not true.  That there is mystery in the universe is not merely a mystical thought of religion.

Modern information theory and quantum physics emerge from this history of information – from the spoken word, to the printed word, to the electronic word.  All of the inventions related to the word – from writing to printing thus have shaped the very way we understand the universe.  That is why it is somewhat amazing to me that Gleick only gives honorable mention to Gutenberg’s printing press.  Johannes Gutenberg (d 1468) doesn’t even make the index though he does acknowledge that Elizabeth Eisenstein in her two volume THE PRINTING PRESS AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE places “Gutenberg’s invention at center stage: the shift from script to print.”  (p 399)  (And many know already that the state of Ohio no longer requires the teaching of script writing for students – typing has totally replaced the use of script.  Will we soon be meeting literate people who no longer can sign their name?)

“As a duplicating machine, the printing press not only made texts cheaper and more accessible; its real power was to make them stable.  ‘Scribal culture,’ Eisenstein wrote, was ‘constantly enfeebled by erosion, corruption, and loss.’  … Before print, scripture was not truly fixed.”  (p 400)

“Scribal error” which is thought to have introduced into the text of Scriptures the variations which modern scholar’s debate can possibly be eliminated by the printing press which produces many exact same copies.   Now as never before people around the world can read the exact same text without variation.  But it has introduced into biblical scholarship an anachronistic thinking – we now read the text as if it has always been exactly like the one we are reading.  It makes us rethink the text as if the physical words are sacred rather than the ideas which they simply and symbolically mimic, reflect or capture.  We create (not re-create!) what we think is the most perfect text of Scripture only to realize that no ancient interpreter of Scripture had the exact text we have since ours is now a hybridization of all the “best texts” available to us.

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (IV)

The Word, The Information, The Bit (II)

This is the 2nd Blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1).

Socrates (d. 399 BC) according to Plato (d. 347 BC) worried that humans would become increasingly forgetful due to the invention of writing.  The written word would mean memorization was obsolete.  There would be nothing for students to learn.

Repetition was the mother of all learning, learning mostly meant memorizing the wisdom of the past.   The written word was a technology that though making  a more permanent record (memory!),  threatened the very nature of what learning was thought to be.  You no longer needed to memorize to be wise if you knew how to read and how to research.  And the written language allowed not just memorization but also analysis.

“In the ancient world, alphabetical lists scarcely appeared until around 250BCE, in papyrus texts from Alexandria.  The great library there seems to have used at least some alphabetization in organizing its books.  The need for such an artificial ordering scheme arises only with large collections of data, not otherwise ordered.  And the possibility of alphabetical order arises only in languages possessing an alphabet: a discrete small symbol set with its own conventional sequence…” (p 58)


Ordering letters and then books by alphabetizing helped make the written language even more useful since greater quantities of information could now be found even in large collections of writings.  There was then a leap from the technology of writing to the technology of machines which could reproduce, use and code writing.

Charles Babbage (d. 1871) became fascinated by a loom whose weaving pattern was controlled by punch cards.

“Inspiring him, as well, was the loom on display in the Strand, invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, controlled by instructions encoded and stored as holes punched in cards.

What caught Babbage’s fancy was not the weaving, but rather the encoding, from one medium to another, of patterns.” (p 109)

An artist designed the cards, the weaver could use different threads and colors to produce the artist’s patterns.   A machine that could convert abstract ideas into physical things, and cards that could store memory – the artist’s patterns.  The basis for computing was being formed.  And collaboration between art and science was being established.

“The invention of writing had catalyzed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning—to hold a train of thought up before the eyes for examination—and now, all these centuries later, logic was reanimated with the invention of machinery that could work upon symbols.  In logic and mathematics, the highest forms of reasoning, everything seemed to be coming together.”  (p 177)

The use of machines gave rise to a mechanical view of the universe.  Everything was following a pattern, perhaps pre-determined, and science was intent upon discovering those patterns in order to explain the universe.  But then these machines opened to our observation the atomic world and sub-atomic world, and suddenly the world was not quite as predictable as thought.

“It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. . . .  More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves.”  (Alan Turing  d 1954, p 212)

What science was becoming aware of is the notion of entropy – randomness that was actually related to the idea of information.    Randomness which could be measured – it contained information.  Heat for example is caused by the random motion of atoms.  That randomness can be measured, and so can the “unavailability” of energy be measured.   Such randomness and “unavailability” actually contain information! (pp 270-271)

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

Information Time Change

I was very impressed when I visited the In the Great Hall of the Library of Congress one can view the Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible,  two books together in one room which represent a moment in history in which our human world changed dramatically.   At one end of the room, the Giant Bible of Mainz is one of the last great handwritten Bibles made in Europe.  The scribe who wrote it began his work on April 4, 1452, and ended on July 9, 1453 – he recorded the dates.   At the other side of the Great Hall of the Library of Congress is displayed the Gutenberg Bible which was made in 1455.

I wrote about this in a previous blog, Paradigm Shifts and Intellectual Revolutions: Who Knew?    In one room really was a “moment” in history, not recognized immediately at that time, which changed the world.   It changed communications, and made it possible for us to transform our thinking about information.

As in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress a moment of change in human history is present right on my desk.    The 526 page book on the left, THE INFORMATION, is perhaps the last of its kind for me – for on the right side of my desk sits my new e-reading Kindle.   History in the making – switching from one 526 page book to the Kindle which claims to hold 3,500 books. Despite laptop, cell phone, Kindle, and tablet, the digital devices which are supposedly changing randomness into information has not replaced the paper mess, just added to the piles on my desk.

THE INFORMATION  offers an explanation, a history, of how our thinking about information has changed, and made all of these digital computing devices possible.  And the reality is I gleefully understand virtually nothing about how it all works.  And yet I live in this moment.  More digital everything, more computing, and still piles of paper, and an occasional meeting missed.  The information on the desktop moves toward order and meaning, while on the top of the desk entropy is nearly reached.

“… data compression likewise encodes the information …. Satellite television channels, pocket music players, efficient cameras and telephones and countless other modern appurtenances depend on coding algorithms to compress numbers – sequences of bits…”  (p 344).”

Yes, they do, and more is yet to come:  “In quantum computing, multiple qubits are entangled.  Putting qubits at work together does not merely multiply the power; the power increases exponentially.”  (p 369)

Say what?



the rIsIng tIde of narcIssIsm

I have often said that the opposite of late is not hate but self-love.  Love is always other directed – it is a coming out of oneself to be with, care for, give to, provide for, sacrifice for, protect, honor and serve the other.   Self-love on the other hand is totally self oriented, it’s never about the other but only about the self.  Christ taught love; much human sinfulness involves selfish, self centered, self love.

Nathan DeWall, associate psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, says that “lyrics in pop music from 1980 to 2007 reflect increasing narcissism in society.”     DeWall was interviewed by NPR’s Michelle Norris:  Study: Narcissism on the Rise in Pop Lyrics . DeWall says song lyrics are cultural artifacts that reveal trends in culture.  Love songs used to be about we and us, today singers croon about how great they are.  DeWall says about the increased narcissism in culture:

“It reinforces this idea in American culture that we really need to focus on how people feel about themselves. You know, we can’t really threaten other people’s self-esteem. We can’t give them accurate feedback about who they really are. People who are very narcissistic, they come off as very confident, but if you insult them or provoke them in any way, it sort of breaks their bubble, and they’re very fragile people.”

Personally I think narcissism and post-modernism go hand in hand.   In post-modern literature there often are no clearly defined good guys and bad guys because everything is simply perspective.  Good and bad depend upon who is evaluating but is always merely personal, the assessment of an individual, but not an objective value.

It is narcissistic in the sense that the only reference point is “I“.  Truth, good or evil are all completely seen as what is true to ME, what is good to ME, what is evil to ME.   There is no recognition that truth, good or evil might have real meaning apart from the self or that they can be shared values of society or by like-minded people.

The pre-postmodern view did hold that there are some universal truths:  murder is wrong for example.  It is wrong not because “I” agree that it is wrong, it is wrong for everyone.  It is a recognized evil.

Postmodernism says there is no one meta-narrative that ties us all together, rather each person lives their life story while bumping into others who are living their stories.   But Christianity (so too Islam and Judaism,  fascism, communism and many other -isms) says there is a meta-narrative which ties all of our lives together.  There are common and shared values.  So there is truth, good, evil and reality beyond the I.

Even evolution is a meta-narrative that ties us all together.  And though pure Darwinism avoids putting value on traits that have evolved/emerged in humans, yet it do recognize that some things are valuable to human survival and some things will hasten the demise of the species.  The things that help a species survive become part of that species’ behavior.  So even if it is only because a gene causes us to be empathetic or compassionate or socially conscious, this trait apparently helps the human species survive and so has a value to them.

It is not surprising that pop songs reflect an increasingly narcissistic attitude in the culture.  It is just another manifestation of the extreme individualism that causes us to forget that we are social beings, created to live in relationships with one another, created to love.

Jon Stewart, Freedom & Tradition?

Comedian Jon Stewart of the Daly Show was interviewed this year by NPR’s Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air.  During the interview he made a very interesting comment about freedom with which many spiritual directors in the Orthodox tradition would agree.  Stewart said:

It – you know, we come in, and it’s not – people always think “The Daily Show,” you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We have a very, kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything, and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.

I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it and feel confident enough to kind of come back to that.

Sometimes people feel a Tradition like in the Orthodox Church curtails creativity and personal expression.  Yet those in the tradition have taught for centuries that what humans often think of as freedom – freedom from constraint and structure to do as you wish – ends up enslaving a person to isolated individualism, namely to themselves.  Unable to free themselves from the limits of the self they are never able to aspire to anything greater than themself. 

One need only think about great athletes – their greatness is expressed when they perfectly follow all of the rules of the sport and yet excel.  It is within the context and structure of the sport’s rules that they can demonstrate their personal excellence.   If there are no rules, then greatness becomes meaningless.  We need only think about all of the baseball players now accused of abusing steroids.  Their “records” now all come into question as it cannot be said that they excelled in the sport, but rather by disregarding the rules their achievements are dubious at best.

The human being soars in spirit when he or she follows a discipline and keeps to the structure offered by Tradition and comes to realize what it is to be fully human, freed of the limitations of sin and selfishness.   Discipline is the means to true human freedom.

Synod Suspends Archbishop Seraphim

As reported on the OCA’s webpage, the Synod of Bishops of the OCA has suspended Archbishop Seraphim of Canada.  

The Synod has also released the mandate for the Synodal Commission for the Investigation of Allegations against Archbishop Seraphim.   This is the document outlining the purpose and scope of this investigative committee.

Before all the gossips read too much into these two actions, keep in mind that none of this necessarily means there is new information which has prompted these actions.   Some things were already in progress and just take time to enact following now established procedures before being announced.   Some had to be worked through the procedures of the system.    For the system to work, it has to take time to work.   Announcements don’t always mean something new has occurred, they sometimes only mean that things were at a point that the announcements could be made.

The Canadian authorities have put a publication ban in effect for this case as has been widely reported in all of the Canadian news outlets.  This would seem to mean don’t expect an endless series of official news flashes and breaking news bulletins for the time being.   As with the OCA, the Canadian system must work through this case according to its procedures.

Eastern Christian New Media Awards Nomination

I have no idea who to thank, but this evening I was notified that my Blog has been nominated in the Best Theology Blog category on the Eastern Christian New Media Awards Webpage.

I am deeply honored, and quite  surprised that someone is of the opinion that this blog should be considered for any award.  So again, thanks.

You can visit their webpage, view all of the nominees and cast a vote for your favorite Orthodox media in a number of different categories at